The United States Senate had a chance to do right by some of our allies — not countries or governments, but people. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters; people who made extraordinary sacrifices to aid our men and women in uniform over the past 15 years in the worst places under the worst circumstances imaginable. Unfortunately, they missed that chance.
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to help a very particular kind of people: Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who served and, in many cases, fought alongside our troops in their respective countries. They served in the most crucial way possible, they helped our Soldiers communicate, to cross the cultural divide. The work these interpreters did was invaluable; they provided hard intelligence and context to our servicemen and women as they did the hard work of navigating a war zone. And when shooting started, these interpreters often took up arms to defend the people they were working with — in some cases, saving American lives.
Senators McCain (R-AZ), Shaheen (D-NH), Tillis (R-NH), and Reed (D-RI) recently put forth an amendment in the Senate to give the SIV program a boost. As of April, fewer than 4,000 visas remained in the program for some 10,000 applicants; the measure put forward would secure an additional 4,000 visas. It isn’t enough, but it would have been a start — and a bipartisan one at that. This is neither a Republican issue nor a Democratic one — it IS an American issue. In no way can we define American values more than by say to those interpreters: If you fight with us and risk all for what you believe in, you earn a path toward a safer and more prosperous future for your family.
It’s unclear to me why this program would be anything but bipartisan. If the United States walks away from its commitment to those who served with our troops in battle, why should anyone in the world take American credibility seriously? How do we expect the world to take our arguments about standing up to extremism seriously if we don’t have the backs of the people who do it in bravest, clearest way? Moreover, how can we expect that the next time we have a conflict somewhere in the world that people will be willing to serve with us? Less support in a war puts our Soldiers at further risk.
Even more frighteningly though is that some of these translators and their families have been marked for death by groups like the Taliban, al-Qaida, and ISIS. If this small group of Senators gets their way and blocks the SIV program real people, our friends and colleagues who put everything on the line for us, could die — all because they chose to stand with Americans and stand up for American values. This is more than a matter of national conscience or pride. This is a matter of national character.
As a veteran myself, I want the United States to honor the commitments it has made to those who served not only with me but also with my brothers and sisters at arms. Global leadership means living our values, so I was disheartened to see the amendment to boost the SIV program fail last week. We need to give these interpreters a chance at security and prosperity under the safety of the United States of America. I hope that Senators Grassley and Ernst, both of whom should be familiar with the challenges our Soldiers experience, will take up this bipartisan cause and immediately propose legislation to stand with those who have already stood with us.
• Jonathan Freeman is a native of Fairfield, is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Ph.D. Student in International Relations at London School of Economics. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as an U.S. Army Officer and was a political appointee in the Obama Administration at the Department of Defense and USAID. Occasionally, he tweets @JFonIR